Housing NOW! Recommendations fall flat under public criticism

As part of Rapid Growth's continued coverage on housing, we bring you this updated information on the Housing NOW! recommendations. Read the first article on this topic published in February, here.

Standing room was scarce at last week’s March 27th City Commission meeting, during which Mayor Rosalynn Bliss and the Commission heard public comments on recommendations 3, 6, 8, and 9 of the Housing NOW! zoning ordinance changes proposed by the Bliss-appointed Housing Advisory Committee. Public comments on the recommendations lasted nearly two and a half hours, during which the city heard over 40 citizens express, with few exceptions, strong concerns for recommendations 3, 6, and 9.

Third Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear set the tone for the meeting before the Housing NOW! recommendations were on the floor for discussion, in response to Planning Director Suzanne Schulz’s presentation of the Planning Commission’s recommendations regarding Text Amendments related to the sale of alcohol for off-premises consumption:

“Can you help us to understand the rationale behind the Planning Commission repeatedly making recommendations that are contrary to what the commission has already vocalized as their preference?” Lenear pointed to a larger problem. “We’ll make a recommendation, it’ll go to the Planning Commission—even these Housing NOW recommendations that are coming forth—are contrary to some of the information that we sent over to the planning commission. So it’s just becoming quite difficult to digest for me, personally.” Lenear asked Schultz to provide her with the Planning Commission members’ names, contact information, and term dates.

The crowd began to applaud Lenear, but was hushed by Bliss’ reminder of her no clapping or signs policy, “because I want people to feel respected in this space; that’s important to all of us.”

A handful of attendees wore matching “GR Homes For All” t-shirts with signs pinned to the back reading “OUR RIGHTS NOT BY RIGHT.” Some of the presenters brought prepared materials, or organized binders. One woman had taken a survey of 211 Grand Rapids residents, the large majority of whom opposed recommendations 3 and 9, which both allow for by-right development near Traditional Business Areas (TBA) and other areas.

Expressing support for the zoning changes was Angelique DuPhene, representing Garfield Park Neighborhood Association, which stood alone among the neighborhood associations in its support, citing “decades of lack of investment.”

“Our neighborhood has seen few new housing units, yet home and rental prices continue to rise,” DuPhene said, adding that the recommendations were “a good first step to help address the supply crisis…We anticipate positive impacts from increased density: walkable neighborhoods, more local customers for our business owners, and more options for transit.”

Yet in the most recent version of recommendation number 6, which offers developers a residential density bonus in addition to affordable housing bonus, the requirement that the development “be located within 300 feet of a transit line” was removed. In recommendations 3 and 9, the committee had also expanded by-right development from within 100 feet to within 500 feet from TBAs. This impact area was referred to throughout the night as the “blue bubble.”

Local realtor and Midtown resident Samantha Searl expressed concern over the vested interest of the Housing Advisory Committee members themselves.

“Did you know that of these [committee members]…seven to 10 live outside Grand Rapids—that’s nearly a third…five people own multiple properties…and only two homes fall within a blue bubble?”

“Grand Rapids will not build its way into affordability,” stated Eastown Community Association Executive Director Don Lee.

The following Friday evening, Mayor Bliss announced on Facebook: “Based on the overwhelming feedback and concerns shared along with the request for more community engagement, the City Commission decided to postpone indefinitely any decision or vote on the recommendations. At our April 10th Committee of the Whole meeting we will discuss next steps for future conversations and community engagement around the recommendations.”

As to what next steps the Commission will take, little is yet known. If Lenear’s dissatisfaction with the Planning Commission is shared among her colleagues—which was difficult to tell at the meeting—the failed Housing NOW! Recommendations could prompt what several residents called for during last Thursday’s public input: a house cleaning of the Planning Committee.

Yet these proceedings have shown, if nothing else, that Grand Rapids’ citizens and neighborhood organizations remain deeply invested in the future of their communities. The depth of research, expertise, and articulation of shared goals expressed by the public last Thursday demonstrate that—counter to one commenter’s supposition that the public’s opposition to the recommendations stemmed from a “fear of change”—the Grand Rapids community is ready for change, as they demand a more equitable city.

Watch the full Commission meeting here.

Rapid Growth continues to explore issues on housing in Grand Rapids and West Michigan. Check out Marjorie Steele's latest articles on the past 10 years in GR housing costs, parts one, two, and three on homelessness, and the most recent on creative solutions to affordable housing.
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